WESTFIELD, NJ — Jamie Tripp Utitus wrote "Zoe Bowie Sings, Despite All Sad Things" with her very own daughter, Zoe, in mind.
The children’s book, illustrated by Johnny J. Keane, is about an eight-year-old girl coming to grips with, simultaneously, having a new brother and her mama's multiple sclerosis diagnosis — echoing the author’s family’s real story. In the book, Mama's ever-present “glass half-full” outlook only makes Zoe Bowie more angry. To deal with it all, she sings to get the “mean reds” out.
The book shows how Tipp Utitus copes with the disease as a mom—playing “hair salon” when she’s unable to get out of bed or off the couch, for example.
“Six months after the birth of my son, whom we affectionately called Meatball, I found out I had MS. I was training for a marathon and kept falling. I kept telling myself I had a weak core from giving birth. I needed to do more crunches,” said Tripp Utitus. “So I did more crunches and I trained earlier and earlier so no one would see me fall.”
It didn't take long before she realized something was wrong, she said.
“I was a teacher at the time, but I was losing the use of my legs quickly,” she said. “To deal with the depression, I started a blog called Ugly Like Me.”
Ugly Like Me has since been voted America’s Best MS blog by Healthline of 2014. Now Tripp Utitus is writing her first novel, Ugly Like Me, based on it. But the children’s book had to come first.
“My heart was focused on my children, particularly Zoe, who was four when I was diagnosed, now eight. My lifelong dream was to give her a children's book about MS based on her, to show her I appreciate what she has done for me. I notice everything, even when she thinks I'm not watching,” she said.
The thought of writing a book for kids scared her, though.
“The voice inside me said ‘Go for it.’ And I did. ‘Go for it anyway.’ That’s been my mantra for the last year. I have a job and two little children and a disease on top of it, so it was difficult. But I’m glad it was difficult, because it means so much more,” said Tripp Utitus.
Adding to the difficulty level, “It’s very hard to write a book about MS without scaring the bejeasus out of a child,” she noted. “It took a while, but I think that I got there.”
To fund the book, Tripp Utitus launched a Kickstarter campaign. She asked people to post photos of their kids holding up signs that said, “I love someone with MS.”
“We had such an overwhelming response,” she said. “We were fully funded in under 24 hours.”
A book launch is scheduled for May 9 (the author’s birthday) at Well Read Books in Hawthorne, NJ, at 8 p.m.
“Zowie Bowie Sings” is available in bookstores now, or order it online by clicking here. It’s also available as an ebook on Kindle, Amazon and Nook for just 99 cents.
“I wanted all children to have access to it,” said Tripp Utitus. “Being able to price the ebook so low—that’s truly one of my proudest moments in my journey.”